One word on many people’s lips these days in Moscow is crisis. Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the devaluation of the ruble, Western sanctions, and the drop in oil prices have all had an impact on the country’s economy. The effect has reached even the world of interior design. “Before, I had a lot of phone calls from different classes of people with different budgets,” notes the prominent decorator Gulia Galeeva. “Now the middle class is afraid to invest. Today, my only clients are oligarchs.” The editor in chief of AD Russia, Eugenia Mikulina, however, is keen to point out the current climate’s upside. “The exchange rate makes people choosier,” she says. “They buy Western things more carefully and turn to Russian companies for objects that might compensate. It’s actually been good for the development of the domestic market.”
One person who is not feeling the pinch is the man considered almost universally to be Russia’s leading interior designer, Kirill Istomin. “Thankfully, our business has not been affected,” he says. “Since we work on an international level, our firm isn’t as vulnerable as more local ones.”
Wherever the commission, Istomin generally has a hard-and-fast rule: He doesn’t work for friends. “I try to keep things separate to preserve the relationship,” he says. But a 2,800-square-foot apartment in Moscow proved an exception. It belongs to Istomin’s oldest friend, Maria (or Masha) Galperina, a cultural-events organizer who initially tried to decorate it herself. Early on, she found a Victorian-style, dark-bronze chandelier in New York and contacted Istomin for help with shipping it. He saw a photo and was aghast. “He told me, ‘In 15 years as a designer, I’ve never seen such an ugly chandelier,’” Galperina says, laughing. Istomin decided to help. “At the beginning, I thought, I’ll just consult on a few pieces of furniture and fabrics,” he recalls. “Then it turned into this major project.”
The pair of thirty-somethings have known each other since the age of four. Their parents met on vacation, and their mothers still speak several times a week. “Masha is vibrant, with a great sense of humor,” Istomin says. “Kirill was always passionate about art and painting,” says Galperina. “I remember a trip to St. Petersburg when we were teens and he negotiated to be allowed to sketch inside various palaces on the days they were closed.”
Istomin was born in Moscow and moved to Washington, D.C., at the age of 16, when his father, an urban planner, got a job at the World Bank. He went on to study at Parsons School of Design in New York City and got his first job with one of America’s most revered decorating firms, Parish-Hadley, whose clients included socialites Brooke Astor and Annette de la Renta. After opening his own firm in New York and Moscow in 2003, he gained independent recognition. His commissions have included a 6,500-square-foot Italian seaside villa, a 27,000-square-foot private house on the French Riviera, and the transformation of a Chinese-style pavilion in the park of the imperial palace at Tsarskoye Selo, near St. Petersburg, into a fanciful weekend home.
Te duplex Galperina shares with her financier husband, also named Kirill, and their two young daughters is on the top two floors of a late 19th-century building on one of Moscow’s best-known thoroughfares, Arbat Street. It was famous as an artistic and cultural hub during Soviet times and is now a pedestrianized magnet for tourists. “I never thought of living around here,” Galperina says. “But I’d always dreamt of having a home with a fireplace that was under the eaves. Plus, it has windows facing both ways.”
One thing that was clear between the two friends was a shared desire to integrate bright hues. “I love color, period,” says Istomin. Galperina’s firm is called Bright People, and she always dresses in vivid tones. “As the weather is not great here, it’s a way of bringing sunshine into your life,” she says. The pink accents on the upper level were inspired by her wardrobe, while the royal blue of the bookshelves was derived from her palette of nail polishes.
A laid-back mood was also something they strived for. Aside from a few family heirlooms, such as classical Russian mahogany dining chairs, there are few valuable pieces of furniture or art. In the study, Istomin quirkily juxtaposed three traditional-style Iranian plates with a bright-green circular canvas by the Moscow-based artist Igor Malyshev. Subdued art may not be on hand, but references to some of the 20th century’s greatest painters are. Inspiration for the storage cabinet in the dining room came from a Matisse exhibition Istomin saw at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2014. It is bedecked with the multicolored frond-like shapes characteristic of the artist’s collages. Works by Picasso are reproduced on a tapestry in one of the powder rooms. In the upstairs den, the TV is integrated into a cabinet adorned with irregular rectangles that are an obvious homage to Mondrian.
Now that the apartment is finished, Galperina feels particularly fortunate. “For me, it was the best and most interesting project of my life,” she says. “Kirill’s wife is still astonished I persuaded him to help me, because he’s always too busy to decorate their own flat!” And despite his initial reticence, Istomin feels it was time well spent. “It’s the first time I’ve created a flat that’s almost identical to the client’s personality,” he says. “You look at the interior and that’s exactly who Masha is.”